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Helping Christians think about an ethic of race

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November 23, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Generally speaking, in the field of Christian ethics, conversations about race and the issues surrounding race historically have either been excluded, discussed briefly, or have vaguely affirmed the universality of the human race, equal image-bearing, and the sinfulness of racism—though progress is being made. This reality is puzzling considering the affect race has on American life and the church. 

Recently, the topic of race and the issue of racism has been a source of heightened tension, division, and fractured relationships among evangelical Christians in America since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death acted as gasoline to an already simmering fire within black Americans who for generations have experienced and witnessed forms of racism and injustice. Additionally, with the frequent deaths of black and brown men and women at the hands of law enforcement, and vigilante civilians, the dividing lines across ethnicities are growing wider and thicker. This is to say nothing of the rhetoric toward and treatment of immigrants in the United States.

For the last six years, a growing desire for a better Christian ethic on race has led to numerous genuine efforts of repentance and learning. Additionally, there is a growing interest in sociological concepts as tools in racial reconciliation, and Christians find themselves debating whether these are legitimate frameworks to utilize when considering issues related to race. Living in the tension of their new humanity but grappling with the realities of their ethnicities, many Christians are asking: what is the church’s response to our racial climate?

Understanding racial reconciliation

D.A. Horton’s 2019 book, Intensional: Kingdom Ethnicity in a Divided World, provides Christians with an introductory-level answer to the question above. He invites Christians to think deeply about race, ethnicity, and the biblical response to our racially-tense climate. Horton, convinced of the misguided nature and inadequacy of racial reconciliation, points Christians to “ethnic conciliation” through an appeal to the de esperanza (the hope) of the gospel.

Though many churches and Christians stress “racial reconciliation,” Horton offers ethnic conciliation as a better alternative for two reasons. First, he reasons, racial implies that there is more than one race of people, which the Bible does not affirm. Additionally, the modern concept of race is a social construct and is not a biblical concept. Instead, the Bible demonstrates that God intentionally created humans with different ethnicities.

Second, reconciliation implies a return to an original state or condition. Horton argues “conciliation” points toward an original state of freedom from animosity, distrust, and hostility. Our only knowledge of conciliation comes from Genesis 1 and 2 where Adam and Eve lived with God in a relationship free from these things. Americans have never lived without the animosity, distrust, and hostility caused by racism and therefore have not experienced true conciliation with one another. Therefore, we cannot be (re)conciled. Instead, the right focus for Christians is ethnic conciliation, which involves both the recognition of ethnicity as God-given and the call to remove that which fractures the relationship between different ethnic groups. 

The blueprint for ethnic conciliation derives from the progressive revelation of redemption. The story of redemption unfolds in a fourfold narrative: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. In the revelation of God’s redemption, the hope of humanity lies in the person and work of Christ, who bears the punishment of sin by dying on the cross and provides hope for humanity in the midst of a fallen world. As a result, born-again believers experience fellowship with God free from animosity, distrust, and hostility. Our reconciliation to God not only provides Christians with a blueprint for ethnic conciliation but also empowers Christians to live with their fellow brethren.

Practical ways to pursue diversity

Horton offers practical ways for Christians to walk toward ethnic conciliation through the development of compassionate character and communication that is manifest in visible compassion toward our communities (p. 52). Compassionate character aims at dismantling animosity, which involves removing exclusionary patterns in our relationship building, allowing believers to engage in meaningful crossethnic relationships. Compassionate communication, which takes aim at distrust, involves speaking truth with a gracious and loving tongue about those outside our own ethnic group. Finally, our compassion must be visible toward those in our communities, in ways that lead toward the dismantling of hostility between ethnicities. 

Unfortunately, partiality and “colorblind Christianity” often hinder the compassion necessary for ethnic conciliation. Partiality is the superficial evaluation of another person’s worth and judgement that proceeds true knowledge of a person and their story (p. 69). Racism is partiality. Horton writes, “When we rename racism as this sin, we as God’s people will begin to leverage His character and His Word as our standard for living” (p. 85). In light of the writings of Paul and James, the proper response to partiality includes adherence to God’s Word, true repentance, and actively including those from other ethnic groups.

Though repentance of the mind and heart is the starting place, the Church must also look for tangible ways to repent. Horton asserts, “The fruits of repentance are not just heartfelt apologies but action steps providing healing for victims, new guardrails for internal policies, and an awareness of how deeply people have been hurt” (p. 115). Citing texts such as Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, and Psalm 79:8-9, and referencing the act of repentance of Richard J. Cellini, Horton presents both biblical and present-day examples of active repentance.

Several actions are suggested for active repentance. Among them is that Christians must remove their presuppositions about those on the margins of society (Matt. 9:36), examine their engagement with the marginalized to ensure that an awareness of the existence and needs of the marginalized is present (Matt. 9:35), and combine the first two actions with fervent prayer (Matt. 9:37-38). 

In addition, Horton asserts, “If we are ever going to be healed and whole, our communities need Jesus-centered, multiethnic, multicultural, and multigenerational-led churches modeling long-lasting engagement, intersecting six avenues of life with the gospel, mobilizing others to do the same” (p. 138). 

Many of Horton’s practical strategies will collide with Christian faith that validates itself through political affiliation. Ultimately, though, Christians must be concerned with kingdom ethics where the social and spiritual commands of Jesus inform everything we do (Matt. 4:19; 5:3-12, 17, 37; 7:12; John 3:3-8; 14:15) (p. 175). And this is because the strategies for ethnic conciliation prioritize the kingdom of God above all else. 

Sherelle Ducksworth

Sherelle Ducksworth is a Sociology instructor at Louisburg College and a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her research interests included Trinitarian theology, theological anthropology, and liberation theology with particular attention to the theology of Herman Bavinck, Delores Williams, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and John Webster. She … Read More